* Vera Tobin, Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot (Harvard University Press, 2018)
* Bradley Irish, Emotion in the Tudor Court: Literature, History, and Early Modern Feeling (Northwestern University Press, 2018)
Before my summer abdication from blog duties, I briefly mentioned the Cognitive Futures event (info here), and one of the papers I enjoyed there was by Vera Tobin, whose book on surprise in fiction I have now finished. Around the same time, I heard from Bradley Irish, who had come across my blog post about the poet John Skelton and the way he works with disgust. He pointed me towards his new book, which looks at the writings of the Tudor court in the light of modern theories of emotions. I think these are both excellent, with many impressive qualities, but in this post I just want to pick out one feature of each.
Tobin brings a constructive and positive attitude to things that are sometimes disparaged. Surprises may seem like a rather cheap trick for authors to play on readers, but they can of course be handled in extremely subtle and sophisticated ways. In parallel, the cognitive biases that Tobin discusses are not treated, as they sometimes are, as ‘a form of moral weakness and failure’. Rather than seeing the short-cuts that can leave us open to deceptions and illusions as comic and/or culpable, she accepts them as functional, helping all that cognitive work get done without it becoming too much. So the interaction between surprise and the mind is not a set of gleeful but belittling exposures — how foolish we are, how exploitative literature is, how easily fiction’s features are explained, etc. — Tobin gives credit on all sides, takes things seriously, and still manages to write an entertaining study.
The achievement I’d pick out in Irish’s book is the way he makes historical circumstances and cognitive perspectives interact so productively. I have often seen people worry that it’s not really feasible to illuminate the intricacies of life in the past with the findings of modern laboratories. For my part, I have felt that one can be attentive to the differences in past mental worlds, while also believing that there are qualities of human cognition that cross over chronological boundaries. Irish manages, I think, to make his 21st-century understanding of disgust, for example, more than plausible as a means of generating insights into the satirical writing of Henry VIII’s reign (including Skelton). Taking a cognitive turn might make one an even better observer of history.